Don’t give people a watch for their birthday, because it reminds them that life is short. Don’t talk about “loving” in front of a woman. And don’t talk about Vietnam.
Those are some of the tips offered by the Khmer School of Language to help expatriates adjust to Cambodia. Agnes Verner, who runs the school with her husband, said it’s important for foreigners to make a good impression.
“I just think generally that people should be aware of the right and wrong things in culture,” Verner said. “If you’re not it’s your own reputation that you’re destroying as well as not showing respect.”
But adjusting to the ins and outs of Khmer culture, the food, the lack of medical services and shopping, and the phone system all at once can be overwhelming for someone new to the country.
Executives who have expatriate employees working for them say there is one important trait a businessman, NGO worker or anyone coming here must have: A sincere desire to work in Cambodia.
“If you’re not sure you want to come here you probably won’t last long,” Mark Henderson, manager of the Coopers & Lybrand office in Phnom Penh, said. “It’s not an easy place to work.”
Henderson’s company has five British employers here. He said the language barrier, lack of adequate phone and electrical systems, and an often uneducated local staff are all things that people must get used to.
“These things can all get to you and they do get to you,” he said.
His company does not offer higher salaries or nicer houses to come to Cambodia, he said, because that could cloud a person’s judgment when deciding to work here.
Telstra, an Australian telecommunications company, sends its expatriate employees through a rigorous screening before bringing them to work here.
“If you pick up negatives straight away that really does send some alarms” that the person shouldn’t come here to work, said Chris Maloy, Telstra’s senior representative here.
Once a final candidate is selected for a job opening, they are interviewed by a person who has worked and lived in Cambodia before. If the candidate has a spouse, the spouse is also interviewed. Part of the interview includes a cultural briefing about things such as living conditions, shopping and medical care.
The final step in the screening process is bringing the candidate and his family to Cambodia for a few days as a test.
“The idea is to take them around, show them what’s available, what’s not available,” Maloy said. “We take them to the markets, so they can see the amputees, the beggars, the filth if you will. It’s that final orientation visit which is normally the crunch.”
So far, no one has been eliminated at that point. The company has six expatriate employees, all from Australia.
Maloy said it’s harder for spouses to adjust here than the employee because the employee has an instant support group at work.
Ramon Del Rosario, marketing manager at Shell Oil, is from the Philippines and came here two years ago. His company has British, Burmese and Thai employees. Most have lived in other countries and know what to expect in developing nations.
Del Rosario said the adjustment to Cambodia was hardest on his wife and children, now ages four and eight.
“There’s actually no entertainment here for the kids, and also for my wife,” he said. “In the Philippines if you want to wile away time or you want to buy something, we have lots of malls.”
Tony Kilner, an accountant at Coopers & Lybrand, said one of the hardest things he had to adjust to was working with the local people.
“They never say they don’t know what they’re doing or they’re wrong and made a mistake,” Kilner said. The Khmer employees don’t want to admit when they don’t know something, he said.
Communication is a big problem for newcomers. “Yes doesn’t always mean yes,” Maloy explained. “Smiling doesn’t always mean they’re happy. They could be downright bloody nervous.”
To help sort out those problems, the school recently started offering culture classes. They offer a myriad of suggestions—from when to blow your nose to a woman’s marrying age.
Students also learn greetings and the traditional way to sit on the floor—half laying on the ground, leaning on your thighs with legs off to the side.
Teacher Chan Rady said most foreigners have questions about traditional dress and dancing, and what to wear on traditional occasions. She said the biggest problem teaching foreigners is “they don’t speak clearly.”
“But foreign students are very clever,” she said. “The majority of them easily understand and remember what we teach.”
A group of Malaysian aid workers who recently attended one of the culture sessions thought it was funny that Cambodian husbands hand their paychecks over to their wives, but then the wives have to ask permission to spend the money.
And they were amazed Cambodians rarely show anger in public. “So now I want to know, how many of you have gastric ulcers?” Jenny Deva, the group leader, asked the instructor.
Asians say the adjustment is easier for them. “For us Filipinos, we don’t find difficulty because we come from Asia,” Del Rosario said. “In terms of relating we really didn’t have any problem.”
Deva agreed. “All these customs have been practiced in Malaysia but they are fading,” she said. “What they are saying to us we have seen in our country.” (Additional reporting by Kimsan Chantara)